As a long and contentious campaign season enters its final days, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students are volunteering their time and skills to ensure the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.
With the COVID-19 crisis still pummeling the country, Americans may face more obstacles to exercising the franchise this year than ever before, particularly as mail-in voting has become a target for disinformation campaigns.
Moreover, while retirees typically serve as poll workers, the pandemic will keep many from serving in this role as they rightfully stay home to protect their own health. Enter younger law students who do not live with immunocompromised family to work the polls in Philadelphia and surrounding counties.
“I signed up to do in-person voter protection work on Election Day,” said Aseem Chipalkattti L’21, who will be serving as a nonpartisan poll observer, “because I know – especially these days – that protecting the fundamental right to vote in the U.S needs more than mere words, but action.”
Rhochelle Krawetz L’21, who will also be volunteering as an observer, agreed.
“I’ll be working the polls this year because the pandemic is presenting our democracy with unprecedented challenges,” she said. “So many of the basic freedoms I’ve studied in my Constitutional Law classes depend on every American being able to vote in fair elections, and I want to make sure they can.”
Students who prefer to contribute from a safe distance are volunteering with nonpartisan organizations like Common Cause to monitor and respond to disinformation on social media or using their legal training to staff voter assistance hotlines. The Law School’s Democracy Law Project is helping connect many students with a variety of in-person and remote opportunities to protect the vote while also logging hours that will count towards the pro bono requirement.
Casey Stewart L’21 started organizing election protection initiatives when her summer associate position was curtailed because of the pandemic.
“My firm encouraged us to get involved in pro bono with the additional time,” she said. “I worked with an informal group of Penn and Temple students interested in election protection for the upcoming election in November. Together, we reached out to the other law schools in Pennsylvania to identify interested student leaders on other campuses. We worked with the Pennsylvania Democrats to coordinate these students and recruit poll observers and other election volunteers. On Penn’s campus, we’ve tried to help connect students with partisan voter assistance opportunities as well as finding groups involved in nonpartisan volunteering, too.”
While Stewart said she has never undertaken anything quite like this before, she is no stranger to politics. Her mother is Mary Gay Scanlon L’84, who currently represents Pennsylvania’s 5th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Scanlon began doing election protection work after witnessing people engaging in voter suppression by falsely telling college students they were not allowed to vote in their college town.
“My parents instilled in me the value of civic responsibility as one of my core values,” Stewart said. “Growing up, my siblings and I went with our parents to vote, where they took us into the voting booth so we got to be part of the process.”
Stewart’s parents would then spend the rest of the day coordinating poll observers or serving as observers themselves, she said.
“This year felt like the most important year for election protection,” said Stewart. “Typically, we rely on older generations to protect the polls, but because of the pandemic, it’s up to us younger volunteers to step up.”
Stewart also said that this work will be especially critical in Pennsylvania this year.
“Pennsylvania is a true battleground state,” she said, “and I expect many of the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts to focus on our state. Voter suppression is rampant right now. From the president down, Republicans have consistently spread messages undermining the validity of the election, and I felt it was my responsibility to help counteract that narrative to make sure that every person has a safe and free opportunity to vote and have that vote counted.”
Whether by campaigning for their preferred candidate or doing nonpartisan work to ensure voters of all persuasions are able to make their voices heard, this election season, our law students are demonstrating with their actions that the future of our democracy is in passionate, capable hands.
Read more about the Law School’s student pro bono projects, which offer unique leadership and practical opportunities while helping under-served populations.